On The Road: Outward Bound

The Nerland Agency survives on the last frontier
On a gray Alaska morning, Rick Nerland, president of the state’s largest ad agency, and three friends are confronted by an Anchorage Golf Course marshal as they approach the 9th green. “I don’t want to alarm you, but we have a bear near the 10th hole,” he says.
Bob Stinson, president of oil field construction company Conam, asks if the foursome should continue.
“Let him play through,” the marshal deadpans, glancing at the bear.
The men finish the round, a benefit for the Junior Achievement League, without further interruption. In Alaska, a bear on a golf course is just another hazard, like sand traps and water. Moose, however, are another story. “I’ve been out there lots of times when moose come through. You don’t want them walking on the greens,” says Nerland. “They’re so damn heavy.”
Welcome to Alaska, a massive state where caribou outnumber consumers and agencies hunt scarce business like wolves in winter. Like the Klondike during the gold rush, Nerland is a boom-or-bust outpost 4,650 miles from Madison Avenue, peopled by “sourdoughs” (longtime residents) and an ever-changing cast of “chechackos” (newcomers) prospecting for experience, adventure or an escape from the varied demands of agency life in what locals call “the United States.”
Anchorage, a nondescript city (population 255,000) nestled at the base of the snow-tipped Chugach Mountain range, is the state’s economic engine. The major tourism, telecom and oil exploration companies are clustered here, along with media outlets, ad agencies and some rowdy bars.
Nerland, trim and smooth with a serious glint of mischief in his eye, and his alter ego, a stocky, gregarious creative director named Graham Biddle, preside over 30 staffers and service accounts that will total almost $20 million in billings this year.
In structure and appearance, The Nerland Agency resembles any other shop. Account executives stroke clients over the phones; media buyers haggle with ad executives at KTUU-TV, the market leader, over per-point costs; 20something copywriters and art directors sporting jeans and the occasional nose ring huddle in a rabbit warren of cubicles behind Biddle’s office.
The atmosphere is both easygoing and aggressive, reflecting Biddle’s laid-back demeanor and Nerland’s team-oriented ethos, a duality played out by the self-assured, achievement-oriented staff. Salaries are commensurate with any similar-size agency, starting at about $25,000 for entry-level jobs and running to six figures for top brass. Women, though outnumbered by men in Alaska, comprise 70 percent of the shop.
On a deeper level, the agency is as foreign to most ad professionals as the grilled reindeer sausage hawked by Anchorage street vendors. Nerland, for example, doesn’t dream of being acquired. “Who would want to own an agency in Anchorage?” he asks. His agency’s guiding principles–honesty, independence and stability–are quintessential frontier values.
“I’m not going anywhere,” says Nerland, a fourth-generation Alaskan. “So I’m not interested in grinding up people for today’s gains. I try to attract people who see the big picture–that it’s important to have a life and do things in that life. Ideally, a career is challenging, interesting and fulfilling, but if it’s 100 percent of your life, you’re going to miss things. Alaska provides an opportunity to check off the 20-things-I-must-do-before-I-die list.”
It’s that philosophy that inspired Nerland account supervisor Tom Snow and his attorney wife, Kathleen, to jump in their Subaru wagon and drive to Anchorage. Snow was on the fast track to success at the Manhattan pharmaceutical marketing agency where he worked. “I could have kept my foot on the gas maybe run an agency in five or 10 years,” he says. “I asked myself, ‘Is this what I want to do with the rest of my life?’ ”
Instead, Snow, 29, and Kathleen surrendered their rent-stabilized West Side apartment for a house with a resident moose in the yard.
It didn’t take Snow long to find a job. The market for experienced hands was so robust that he wrote Stacia Gillam, Nerland’s vice president of client services, on a Tuesday, got a reply on Wednesday and a job offer Thursday.
A year into their odyssey, the Snows are still reveling in new experiences. “New York is a great place, but it’s provincial in an odd way,” says Snow. “You go to the same restaurants, get a share in the Hamptons. Here, things are different.”
Snow, an Amherst College graduate, has become an avid cross-country skier, runner and biker. He also feels more fulfilled professionally, having to wear many hats at Nerland, where titles defy responsibility.
Alaska lures many individuals who, like Snow, want to re-evaluate their lives. A hundred years ago, gold was the magnet. Today, the searchers hunt for meaning. Life in such majestic settings allows people the chance to look deep within themselves.
“It either grabs or repulses you,” says Biddle, who arrived in 1978. “I resisted Alaska. I wanted to be this big, swinging art director, the guy photographed holding a cocktail at a New York party. Let’s face it, I’m not going to get to the top of my game in Alaska, but there’s more to the equation: children, family, winter light so blue, subtle and pretty.”
Another Nerland account supervisor, Karen Kluesner, ran a consulting business in Minneapolis until she felt the call of the wild and flew to Alaska for a four-week vacation in 1997. She met Steve, a heavy-equipment operator who claimed he was offended by outsiders asking him what he did for a living. “What I do for fun is more important,” he told Kluesner.
She wrestled with that notion all the way home, embraced it as she settled her affairs and headed north.
Newcomers soon learn that old-line family and political connections are key factors in doing business here. Nerland pitched and won the Captain Cook Hotel account because he got a call from a friend, Wally Hickel Jr., the scion of one of the state’s richest and oldest families. “His and my family are core families,” Nerland explains.
Still, in 1991, Nerland’s first year running the agency (he bought the shop from Rick Mystrom, who became mayor), 45 percent of the shop’s revenue–$2 million–went out the door. The losses threatened more than Nerland’s balance sheet. Like any frontier gambler, he’d put his house up as collateral when he bought the business.
He built it back slowly, but in 1997, a prime telecom client, General Communications (GCI), jumped to rival agency Porcaro Communications, gutting 50 percent–or $2.5 million–of Nerland’s income. “Everybody took a pay cut,” he says. “We skinnied down, laid people off, canceled travel plans and purchases. I got very active in the new-business area.”
The boom-and-bust cycle continues. Late last year, Nerland won Alaska Communications Systems (ACS), a newly created telecom that provides local, long-distance, wireless and Internet services to about 80 percent of Alaska.
The agency wound up with a 40 percent boost in new billings and a major headache. “We are the client from hell,” admits Marnie Brennan, ACS director of corporate communications. “We had a number of different brands that were very strong and highly valued by customers. Unifying them is difficult and risky.”
The competition, AT&T and GCI, anticipating the newcomer’s vulnerability, were quick to attack. Aggressive telemarketing campaigns quickly stripped the Anchorage Telephone Utility (a component of ACS) of 20 percent of its customers. “We’ve finally stopped the bleeding,” says Brennan. “Nerland is doing an excellent job on an extremely difficult project.”
Comforting words for the agency, which works in a market where clients can be as volatile as the weather in the Bering Strait. Given the cyclical nature of an oil-based economy, and mergers that take business out-of-state, clients must be cultivated like hothouse orchids.
Together, British Petroleum (BP Exploration), the McDonald’s Cook Inlet Co-op and ACS account for 65 percent of Nerland’s revenue. A nine-person creative department churns out print, broadcast and interactive, along with collateral and outdoor work for the big three, as well as approximately15 smaller clients.
“Up here, you’re a renaissance guy,” says Biddle, who, like other small-agency CDs, sometimes writes, scouts, casts, directs and produces his spots. And the tasks can be daunting.
Recently, Biddle realized the tracks his Los Angeles producer mixed for an ACS spot were a disaster. He spent a frantic afternoon lining up singers and musicians for a repeat recording session.
Late that evening, at How How, a favorite Chinese restaurant, Biddle and Nerland begin producing the session. A few days later, thinking the task complete, Biddle takes his 30-foot sailboat Mambo into the wind. He’s planning to spend a few days among the orcas on Prince William Sound. His cell phone rings. It’s Kluesner. The last-minute recordings are a disaster. “Way too hip,” she explains, for ACS’s target market.
He turns the boat around, sails six hours back to his berth in Seward, drives 130 miles back to Anchorage and hops the next flight to Los Angeles. At a third L.A. session days later, he hits a home run. “A real swing/scat thing, with terrific energy,” says Biddle.
Indeed, Nerland’s creative work ranges from serviceable to powerful. That’s thanks, in part, to Alaska’s colorful history, exotic wildlife and dramatic landscape. A poster featuring a Native Alaskan “miracle dancer” and her great-great-granddaughter, part of the ACS campaign, is show quality.
“That’s the warm and fuzzy Alaska look,” says Nerland with a laugh. “To an outside judge, anything with a bear or moose in it is an award winner.”
Television, however, is a tougher challenge. “I feel really good if I’ve got $30,000 to spend on a 30-second spot,” Biddle says. He has convinced clients to allow him to shoot ads on 16mm film rather than videotape. (The cost of a top-quality 35mm shoot is prohibitive.) He lavishes money on high-quality soundtracks, going outside for producers, sound designers and talent. “Audio can sound like a million bucks,” he says, “but it doesn’t cost a million bucks.”
Yet even an eclectic guy can run out of tricks. Biddle yearns to incorporate humor into his work, but lacks the resources to pull it off consistently. “In most cities, you want funny stuff, you can find 20 reels to chose from,” he says. “You want French fries? There’s some director who makes French fries look fabulous. Here, no one specializes in fries.”
Finding talent to create quality ads is a task that regularly keeps Biddle on the road. He’s been flying a Seattle copywriter to Anchorage three days a week for months, at no small expense.
“I’ve been looking to hire a full-time writer for two years,” he grumbles. “You get kids right out of school, or some burnout from Singapore who wrote a Marlboro jingle 30 years ago. It’s hard for people to believe this could be a good career move.”
Including Nerland, Alaska has just four full-service shops, Bradley/Reid Communications, Northwest Strategies and Porcaro Communications. Outside agencies rarely venture onto Alaska’s turf.
As a result, the constant pitching and wooing of new business that many agencies find exhilarating is nonexistent. “We have a demo reel that nobody ever sees,” says Biddle. “We’re just not pitching.”
In 1993, the agency traveled to Seattle to pitch the $5 million Kenworth Truck Co. account. It lost. “The perception is, ‘How could an agency in Alaska service us?’ ” admits Nerland. “It’s a big leap mentally. The work we do could compete effectively in just about any market. The attempts we’ve made to establish that on a sustained basis have not worked.”
To bridge that gap, Nerland joined World Wide Partners (WWP), a federation of U.S. and overseas agencies, including Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners in New York and Gardner, Geary, Coll & Young in San Francisco, that provides access to joint business, research, hands-on experience and training.
Nerland media supervisor Kristen Fowler spent a week in Memphis, Tenn., working at Archer Malmo, an agency with a similar client roster. When Nerland won the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute account, WPP member Grant Jacoby in Chicago handled media placement.
Still, some Nerland staffers wonder if they can cope successfully with the isolation that’s endemic to Alaska. On the Thursday before the July 4th holiday, the agency, located in a former Department of Motor Vehicles building on E Street, is buzzing. Summer is the busy season for production; the weather is cooperative and the sun barely sets.
Drew Nerland, 21, Rick’s eldest son, answers the phone. Rick, the agency strategist, mulls over the batting order for his 10-year-old son Evan’s Little League championship game. Clients doodle on Etch-A-Sketch boards scattered on a coffee table under a battered tin sign salvaged from the dry-goods store that was once the Nerland family business.
Gillam, serious and focused compared to Nerland and Biddle, glances at a book, How to Be a Good Account Manager, on her office end table.
Next door, Snow says the absence of the familiar is as daunting as Alaska’s geographic isolation, causing a chilling effect on the soul. “I don’t miss Broadway,” he says. “I miss the vitality of every inch of New York City, of staring into people’s lives.”
Down the hall, a producer named InYoung Lee is struggling to decide what to do with her life. A Korean American raised in Anchorage, Lee grew up hating Alaska’s isolation and dreamed of a photographer’s life in Manhattan. A driven, determined Lee worked 10 hours a night during college before realizing she was an “average photographer.”
She came home, landed an account coordinator’s job with Nerland–and opened her eyes. “It was like a switch flipped,” she says. “I made new friends, became outdoorsy, flippin’ loved it!” Biddle tapped Lee’s energy for the creative side, training her as a producer and encouraging a move into editing.
Ironically, now that she’s professionally secure, the old wanderlust has returned. “There are opportunities I could grow into,” she says. “Graham keeps the door open, but I know where my skill set ends. I’d be going backward if I stayed, [but] having to leave again kills me.”
In Alaska, wistfulness, like gorgeous scenery, comes with the territory.